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The Audacity of Hope

In the 100 years since the Cubs won a World Series, the underachieving team has managed a single unmitigated triumph: inspiring the play Bleacher Bums. On this centennial, we look back at the creation of that memorable drama.

(page 4 of 5)

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The director Stuart Gordon communing with cast members

 


Mantegna (right) at a 1989 game with his friend Dennis Farina (center, sitting) and cast members

JOE MANTEGNA: The improv period was maybe four or five weeks, counting previews. Everything came together. Partly that was because many of us had worked together for four or five years at that point. Dennis Franz, Mike Saad, Keith Szarabajka, Ian Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Richard Fire, Roberta Custer, and Josephine Paoletti. I was a “new guy,” and I’d been there for five years. And we had help. Stuart brought in Dennis Paoli, who structured the script.

DENNIS PAOLI: Stuart and I had gone to Lane Tech High School together, and then we’d been roommates at the University of Wisconsin. By 1977, I had moved to New York, but I was a lifelong Cubs fan: the afternoon games, the sun in the bleachers, the beer, the 12- or 14-inning games. He knew I knew the experience.

When I got involved, they had an actual game in mind. And all the actors had to see where the ball went; they all had to react at the same time. And they had their characters, and they had [transcriptions from] seven hours of improv tapes. It needed a bit of structure, tinkering, really, to make sure that the play was organic—to coin a phrase. I was able to help a little, so I have an additional dialogue credit. The technical structure wasn’t complicated. The play had one light cue, which was all it needed: “It is a brilliantly sunny day.”

JOE MANTEGNA: We could do this play for next to nothing. For costumes, we went to Amvets, the nearby thrift store, and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays they had half-price day. So we got shirts for a dollar and shoes for 50 cents. I borrowed a sound recorder, a Nagra, that they use in movies. And I recorded a whole game’s worth of crowd noise at Wrigley Field. During the play, the tape would run under the bleachers, and the audience would just hear this murmur. But it was really Wrigley Field. And the set was easy: We were working out of the Leo A. Lerner Theater on Beacon Street in Uptown, and it was designed with seats on concrete tiers. So if we took the seats out of one section of the tiers, we would have natural bleachers. We put folding chairs on the stage, and the audience could fill up the rest of the seats in the arena and also sit on the stage. And we would perform the play up in this one section of the seats.

STUART GORDON: We hoped it would be a success for the Chicago audiences, because we were all about creating theatre specifically for Chicago. But we never dreamed of it being a big national hit. We had three weeks in August to fill before we had to go on a scheduled tour to California, Philadelphia, and New York with other plays. We thought this would do the trick.

JOE MANTEGNA: The first time we did it for an audience, the audience went nuts. It was unbelievable. People went crazy. It was an overnight sensation. The next day, the word was out. People had to come. Some of these people had never been to a play in their lives, and they were calling the theatre, asking what they should wear.

RICHARD CHRISTIANSEN: Nothing could prepare you for the real exuberance and joy in theatre that Bleacher Bums provided. To this day, I can remember little bits of dialogue and actions from when I first saw the play. It wasn’t just a clever distillation of some of the characters found in the bleachers in Wrigley Field. The play exuded a whole aura of being alive and happy and enjoying being part of a group activity. And the connection between the audience and the actors was incredible.

JOE MANTEGNA: We had captured some of that magic I used to think about. Here is the irony: The Cubs were doing great in the summer of 1977. On the play’s opening night, they were in first place. Then they fell out of first place and never recovered the rest of the season. But we had a hit.

ROBERTA CUSTER: If I had realized then I was going to spend most of the next two and a half years onstage in a swimming suit, covered in that orangy Man Tan stuff that stained my palms—and then I had to cover myself with Bain de Soleil every night—I might have thought about what I was getting into. I ended up taking carotene pills from France to keep up the orange color.

Photography: (Image 1) John Austad/Chicago Tribune; (Image 2) Robert Langer/Chicago Tribune

 

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